It shouldn't be surprising to hear that fully half of my wedding clients have children from a previous marriage or relationship. With American divorce rates hovering near 50 percent, while our actual affinity for marriage remains strong, more brides and grooms than ever are celebrating their second weddings with their children in attendance.
Unless the children are very involved in your relationship and were expecting an engagement announcement, happy newly engaged couples need to give some thought to how they're going to share the exciting big news with everybody. And it's very important to start with the children. When the second marriage would involve them, it's not the time to pop the question in front of an audience.
Remember, little people hear everything, and if you're telling your sisters or besties about it on the phone, your kids are going to know something's up. Don't risk having somebody congratulate you in front of the kids before you've told them about the engagement and openly discussed what it's going to mean for them. Every child will react differently to the news, even within the same family. It's important to give the kids a chance to process the news before sharing it with the entire free world. Let them figure out how they feel about it before everybody they see asks them if they're excited about your upcoming nuptials.
Jane Greer, a psychologist specializing in relationships and author of Adult Sibling Rivalry: Understanding the Legacy of Childhood, says that timing is everything.
"It's best to share the news with them right away, as soon as you get engaged, together with your fiancé. The quicker you bring them into the experience—and help them feel as much included as your fiancé—the better it will go," Greer says.
She says that, initially, it's not unusual to get mostly negative reactions. Children have to process what this change means for them personally and for their role in the family. They will have questions and will need time to process the answers into something that makes sense to them.
You might have to fight the urge to become angry or frustrated if the children's concerns are selfish or even irrational. Many of the hurtful things they may say will come from a place of fear. Your job is to help them understand where they fit into the new family pictures and to reassure them that there's nothing to be afraid of.
"If they're negative, be understanding and empathic," Greer says, suggesting the following phrases:
—"I know this may be a surprise for you."
—"I realize you guys may not be ready for this."
—"That's okay, you're entitled to your feelings."
—"Maybe you'll feel differently in the future."
Don't push them to change their minds in the moment. Give them time to think it through and come back to you with their questions. This is big stuff for the little guys, and you may not be prepared with answers to all of their questions just yet. If their other parent, your ex, has been very present in your lives post-divorce, a remarriage means that things will change. You might not continue inviting your ex to your house on Christmas morning, for example, unless your new spouse is also inviting his children's other parent. Let them know that while there will be changes, you'll take their feelings into account and ask their opinion whenever possible. Positive reinforcement from their other parent can be very helpful too if your ex is on board.
Do your best to get the kids involved in the wedding-planning process. If you both have children from a previous relationship, make sure that everybody feels included. Nobody should be left on the bench, so to speak, on the big day. There's a role for everybody who wants to help make your wedding special. The more the kids participate in making the big day happen, the more invested they'll be in the success of their newly blended family.
Sandy Malone is the owner of Sandy Malone Weddings & Events and author of How to Plan Your Own Destination Wedding: Do-It-Yourself Tips from an Experienced Professional. Sandy is the star of TLC's reality show Wedding Island, about her destination wedding planning company, Weddings in Vieques.